Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Madras: Tales from the Hood.

Choosing the right hero is the most important decision that will get made for a film. The tone of a role, the tone of a film changes depending on the hero. I would never claim to be an expert on Karthi’s screen presence but from what little I’ve seen of him--Saguni and Alex Pandian--Karthi’s speciality is playing the affable straight man who responds with a smile and twinkle in his eye when crazy stuff happens around him. As a hero, he’s a very likable light weight. I mean that in the best sense possible. Not every hero can be as charming and delightful to watch as Karthi and it’s no crime to specialize in being “affable” rather than “angry” or “serious.” But “affable” is not exactly the first quality one might choose for a hero in a non-filmi, revenge-driven masala film.


That being said, a good director can and will tweak a role to suit a hero’s image and abilities. I’d never seen anything Pa. Ranjith had done before (which I think is just Attakathi) but I was deeply impressed with the way he was able to use Karthi’s immense affability in service of his script, a script originally written for a newcomer. The film may have been originally intended to be realistic but Karthi gives a sparkle to Madras, a filmi gloss that enhances the film without overwhelming it. Madras is not quite realism but it’s not full-on filmi either. It’s a pleasing mix of elements that has me already ready to see what Ranjith is going to do next.

Madras, as the title suggests, is a film about place and that place is the crowded, lower middle class neighborhoods of north Chennai. Karthi plays Kaali, an affable, college-educated guy who has one of those corporate jobs where you wear chinos, a collared shirt, and a name badge on a lanyard. But even though Kaali works in the Shining New India of malls and Pizza Hut and Costa Coffee, he still lives in the Old India north Chennai neighborhood with his parents. Kaali has an easy-breezy attitude to life. He bickers with his mum over potential brides, fetches water from the pump, and hangs out with all his old friends on the street.

Kaali’s best friend is Anbu (newcomer Kalaiyarasan), an aspiring politico who loves the neighborhood more than even his own wife (Ritwika) and son. But all is not well. Leering from above Anbu and Kaali’s beloved streets is a giant portrait of the enemy painted on a wall, the fallout from a bloody split in the local political party. Anbu’s side of the party claimed the neighborhood but the other half of the party refused to give up the wall. And the fight for control over the wall that the portrait is painted on is what drives the plot of the film.

What struck me the most about this film is the symbolism of that wall. The battle here, like so many political conflicts worldwide, is not really about ideology or even physical property. As the portrait on the wall leers down in shot after shot of the film, you really come to understand just how oppressive it actually is and how it might be worth fighting over the right to remove it. The portrait is a constant reminder of bitterness, of irritation, of lives lost. And word around the neighborhood is that it’s cursed. People die in front of the wall. The psychological wound in the neighborhood cannot heal while that portrait is there.

Easy-breezy Kaali, though he is the hero, is not really an active player in the politics game. Sure, he tags along with Anbu and makes a stand when required but underneath it all you can tell Kaali would rather be playing footsie with lady-love Kalaiarasi (an effectively de-glammed Catherine Tresa) than fighting. And though some reviews didn’t agree with me, I think that tension that Karthi’s image brings ended up working really well. It’s more heartbreaking to see an affable guy driven to anger than it would be to see a broody type hero doing the same. And because Kaali is not naturally a violent guy, it really, really made the denouement that much more effective.

(I especially loved Kaali's buddy mohawk guy back there.)

And the rest is all wonderful slice-of-life gravy. Apparently Ranjith shares my love of odd faces and character actors and he gives us so much to enjoy. From Kaali’s group of friends to his parents to the rowdies, there wasn’t a dull a face in the bunch. The three standouts from the supporting cast were Hari as the mentally ill “Johnny,” Ritwika as Anbu’s wife Mary, and Rama as Kaali’s mother.

Hari, who I believe is a theater actor, is exactly the type of performer I live for. His Johnny is a tragi-comic character, popping up in the margins of scenes and making every other actor seem irrelevant with an intense glance. We’re told early on that Johnny had once spoke amazing English but had had the sense beaten out of him by the police. Whether or not it’s true, Hari really does make it seem plausible. There’s a sharp intelligence in the eyes peeking out from under the crazy mop of hair. And though he’s a figure of fun, we--or at least I--grew to really love him.

Ritwika, as Mary, gives a wonderfully earthy performance. I don’t remember her in Paradesi, though to be fair, it’s been over a year since I’ve seen it, but I can see that Bala-esque quality to her performance. Ritwika brings an edgy vibrancy to Mary, who is loving but not sweet. She’s aggressive and forthright and steals every scene she’s in. She loves her husband but you can also feel the frustration that he cares more about the neighborhood than he does about her. There are one or two kissing scenes between the couple but they are there to show the characters’ relationship, not to titillate. And even anti-kissing scene me found them appropriate.

Now Rama is another strong, female role and though she really didn’t have that many scenes, she was so sharp in all of them. It was really enjoyable watching Kaali get scolded. There are so many sweet, self-sacrificing mothers in film that it’s fun when you get one who is pushy and kind of unpleasant but still loving. Rama played really well against Karthi’s sweetness.

As I mentioned before the film is a nice mix of “realism” and “filmi,” and that is most clear in the song picturizations. The songs are mostly montage with a couple of neat additions. The first being a group of six dancers who do choreography around the hero as he goes about his business. It was really quite a nice compromise in styles--and the dancers were really good! And the second is a lament “sung” by a singer in the film.

Santhosh Narayanan is another talent to keep an eye on. He also did the wonderful soundtrack to Jigarthanda and brings a modern flair to his sound in much the same way as Amit Trivedi does for Hindi films.

So, while I do agree with some of the more negative reviewers that there isn’t much “new” to Madras per se, that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable and thought-provoking film. And it’s great to see new talent given such a big platform. Much as with Karthik Subbaraj using Siddharth in Jigarthanda, I don’t think we can fault Ranjith for making Madras with Karthi. Is Karthi the best actor who ever lived? No, of course not. But because Karthi wanted to make this film it got made and Ranjith made it a good film. Because Madras is a good film and at the end of the day, that is what matters.

2 comments:

Mariola said...

"from what little I’ve seen of him--Saguni and Alex Pandian--Karthi’s speciality is playing the affable straight man who responds with a smile and twinkle in his eye when crazy stuff happens around him. As a hero, he’s a very likable light weight. I mean that in the best sense possible. Not every hero can be as charming and delightful to watch as Karthi and it’s no crime to specialize in being “affable” rather than “angry” or “serious.” But “affable” is not exactly the first quality one might choose for a hero in a non-filmi, revenge-driven masala film. "
Well.. knowing is debut film (and think his most important role till now)change this perspective a bit ;)

swilso04 said...

Hi FG :)

HAD to share this awesome article about the subtext of untouchability and casteism running throughout the movie:

https://baradwajrangan.wordpress.com/2014/10/10/lights-camera-conversation-impure-tamilians/

Also, the singer who is "singing" the funeral song in the movie is Gaana Bala, the actual singer of the song!! He's a hugely popular, almost novelty act in Tamil film music, its impossible to explain him but he's something of a sensation :p

Also, as the same commenter who introduced you to TentKotta, I feel obliged to let you in on another secret: On the iTunes store, go into the movies section and run a search for "Regional Indian" - there is quite a treasure trove!!! Attakathi, the director of Madras' first, much lighter movie is there with subs :) Most of the films on the iTunes store cannot be found anywhere else with subs!!!

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl